The Quarantine Stream: 'The World's Toughest Race' is the Next Evolution of Competition Reality Shows
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: The World’s Toughest Race
Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime Video
The Pitch: What if Survivor…but without the game show structure? What if The Amazing Race…but actually physically grueling and mentally punishing? What if Man vs. Wild…but with 66 teams, many of them fascinating and relatable men and women who put themselves through hell for personal, frequently heartfelt reasons? You can see the DNA of The World’s Toughest Race spread across other reality shows, but I don’t think there’s ever been a reality competition series this harrowing, this massive, or this ambitious.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: You don’t have to be familiar with the niche sport of “Adventure Racing” to enjoy The World’s Toughest Race, a 10-episode series that follows the contestants of the 2020 Eco-Challenge race in Fiji. Hundreds of contestants representing dozens of nations race from one end of the island nation to the other, hitting various checkpoints and following certain physical disciplines, but otherwise given an astonishing amount of free rein to get from one point to the next. Over the course of 11 grueling days, some teams triumph, some of them fail, and each and every one of them struggles, pushed to the physical and mental limit by the elements and by one another. And goodness gracious, it’s thrilling stuff.
The first thing that becomes obvious when you fire up this series is the sheer scope of it all. And not just the race itself, with its 66 four-person teams, hundreds of miles of race course, and stretches involving boating, raft-building, swimming, mountain climbing, bicycling, and dense jungle hiking. The production itself feels genuinely massive. Footage is captured from helicopters, drones, embedded camera operators, and GoPros attached to the racers themselves. Footage from the air and the ground alike takes us from team-to-team, and sometimes back to Race HQ, where a crew monitors each racer by GPS and where helicopter pilots are on standby to perform rescue operations.
It’s the kind of production that boggles the mind – how did they plan this show, let alone edit it into something coherent?
And then there’s the sheer realness of it all. Sure, there’s a few reality show tricks of the trade incorporated here and there, but there’s a survival documentary feeling to the whole thing, letting the series feel more like Free Solo than Survivor. The cameras are on hand to witness acts of extraordinary courage, but they’re also on hand to witness some of the strongest people you’ve ever seen crumble before your very eyes. Racers battle heatstroke, hypothermia, broken bones, muscle-deep cuts, and sheer punishing exhaustion. They sometimes battle each other, as a single wrong navigational error can send them down the wrong river or leave them stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a storm. Watching these people choose to push through, or choose to radio for evac and end their time in race, makes for stunning television.
One sequence, where a team (and their cameraman, putting himself into his own talking head to explain the danger they’re in) must cross a rapidly rising river in the middle of a torrential rainstorm in the dark of night left my blood pumping. Another sequence, where two members of a team decide to quit while the others clearly want to continue, is one of the most uncomfortable and real things I have ever seen in a show like this. I can think of literally dozens more examples of moments that made my heart soar and my brain melt. Each episode is a buffet of humanity being tested in every way possible.
Honestly, the only real false note comes from host and celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls, whose onscreen posturing is nothing short of obnoxious next to the actual racers. His constantly clean clothes and effortlessly chirpy persona couldn’t feel more fake next to the folks who are sweating, bleeding, puking, and wrecking themselves just to finish, not even win, this damn race. By a few episodes in, my wife and I had started screaming for Bear to get off the TV every time he reared his carefully made-up head.
But Bear Grylls is not the focus here. The racers are. And while the show certainly can’t highlight each of the 66 teams, it does offer a spotlight to a surprisingly large number of them, each of them with a unique story to tell. There’s the New Zealand team, who are here to win and are essentially the Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of Adventure Racing. There’s a team consisting entirely of Black Americans, who want to prove they have a place in this sport. There’s the Estonian team, who fell into adventure racing as the ultimate act of rebellion once they escaped Soviet occupation. And there’s the team with the seasoned adventure racer who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, who is racing one final time with his son before he loses his mental faculties for good.
The list goes on and on. Every single person has a reason to be here, to be doing this. Some of them want the glory of victory. Some just want to prove they can do it. Others have more personal reasons, some of which come out in surprising moments in surprising locations. This may be the most glossy and ambitiously produced show of this kind I have ever seen, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of the action. And goodness, I found myself rooting for all of them.
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